We may not have had quite as much unfettered reading time as we did in the lockdown days of the COVID pandemic, but Engadget’s editors have still managed to pick out, peruse and ponder a broad variety of this year’s most intriguing books. Whether we learned how to wield a wok, listened to life lessons from Hideo Kojima, or dove into the seedy underbelly of an alt-universe 1940’s San Francisco, here are a few of our favorites from 2022.
Razzmatazz by Christopher Moore
Classic noir cinema was a staple in my house growing up — I mean, my first celebrity crush was on The Thin Man series co-star, Myrna Loy — so any story from the days when mugs were mooks and gals were dames holds sway over my heart. But The Thin Man, like the rest of the media made at that time, only showed a very narrow, very male, very white view of life. Christopher Moore’s latest novel, Razzmatazz, adds some much needed color to the otherwise black-and-white world of noir.
Razzmatazz is the second title for Moore’s satirical murder mystery series, following 2019’s Noir. In this latest installment, we’re returned to Post-WWII San Francisco as bartender Sammy “Two Toes” Tiffin and his cadre of misfit friends hustle to survive in Fog City. Now, helping disappear your best friend’s girlfriend’s abusive husband is one thing but, as the team soon learns, stealing back a possibly magical, definitely priceless, heirloom from the local Tong is another entirely — and that’s before some madman starts murdering the city’s drag kings.
Razzmatazz is a smart and just a bit snarky adventure mystery featuring a diverse and developed cast of characters, fast-paced action that seamlessly transitions between the varying viewpoints of said ensemble and doesn’t get bogged down in world building. At around 350 pages apiece, Noir and Razzmatazz will each provide a solid weekend’s entertainment and, if you’re still looking for more Moore after that, check out 2020’s Shakespeare for Squirrels. – Andrew Tarantola, Senior Editor
Upgrade by Blake Crouch
I always look forward to new Blake Crouch releases because his writing is vivid and fast-paced, so much so that I can see the movie version playing out in my head as I devour his latest title in just a couple of days. This year’s Upgrade was no exception – we’re in a world in which gene editing is real yet highly regulated, and we follow Logan Ramsay, a member of the Gene Protection Agency as he tries to apprehend those who may be involved in nefarious gene-editing activities.
But after a violent encounter on a mission, Logan starts to feel less and less like himself and more like a better version of himself. He can read faster, he’s physically stronger and he needs less sleep. He soon finds out his genome has been hacked, and he also discovers he’s part of a much larger plan that could change humanity as he knows it. As he works to stop this plan from being executed, he’s forced to confront some of the darkest parts of his past and the tarnished family legacy he’s been working so hard to escape.
Crouch excels at putting readers into his protagonist’s shoes, forcing them to feel the same anxiety, dread and confusion inflicting his main characters. But to think that produces an overall unpleasant reading experience would be incorrect: Upgrade is an intriguing thrill ride that moves at break-neck speed, while posing a lot of questions about humanity as a whole. – Valentina Palladino, Senior Commerce Editor
Notes on an Execution by Danya Kukafka
On its face, Notes on an Execution may seem like a typical examination of a serial killer. The novel begins with Ansel Packer counting down his last 12 hours before he’s to be executed for killing many women. But Danya Kukafka is much less interested in this murderer as she is in telling the stories of three women who were all affected by Ansel in some way. We follow Lavender, Ansel’s mother, as a lost teenager pushed to the brink as she struggles to protect her children and herself; Hazel, Ansel’s sister-in-law who watches her twin lose herself in this toxic relationship; and Saffy, the lead investigator on Ansel’s case with more hidden trauma than you might expect buried just under the surface. But these women aren’t victims with a capital V. Instead, they work to flip the serial-killer narrative on its head by focusing our attention on the fact that, despite everything, they survived. Notes on an Execution is a dark, engaging story with lovely prose and a surprisingly, underlying element of hope at the end of it all. – V.P.
Our Missing Hearts by Celeste Ng
Our Missing Hearts, in the grand tradition of near-future dystopian fiction like The Handmaid’s Tale or 1984, presents a vision of our country that feels far too close for comfort. In Ng’s third novel, she writes of a 12-year-old boy named Bird and his father, who live in a United States where laws enshrining America-first culture have been put in place following years of economic and social turmoil.
In this world, Asians have been made the scapegoat for all of America’s ills; while Asian Americans are still technically free and full citizens, many of them are under the thumb of police and subject to various degrees of violence from so-called “real” Americans. And any parents deemed to be un-America could have their children immediately confiscated – no questions asked. As in any good dystopia, books deemed unpatriotic have also been seized and destroyed, including a book of poetry by Bird’s mother, a woman who disappeared years earlier.
This story is simultaneously small and universal. The meat of the narrative focuses on Bird pushing to learn more about his mother and the circumstances of the world he’s living in, and there are only a handful of major characters. At the same time, Ng skillfully paints a plausible picture of an America that’s given in to its worst instincts. Ng has pointed out multiple times that all the atrocities being committed in Our Missing Hearts are things that have taken place in the US or other parts of the world already – not a comforting thought.
But as bleak as this world is, the book is filled with moments of unexpected beauty and small triumphs. Perhaps most crucially, there’s a sense that while an extremist minority currently may rule over a more sensible populace, there’s a way out of the darkness. Our Missing Hearts isn’t a light story, but it’s an important one, artfully told by a writer who can deftly weave together a compelling narrative with poignant social commentary. Ng may have made a big impact in popular culture with Little Fires Everywhere (and its accompanying Hulu miniseries), but Our Missing Hearts feels like her definitive work thus far. – Nathan Ingraham, Deputy Editor
The Creative Gene by Hideo Kojima
Hideo Kojima is a video game designer best known for the Metal Gear series, which popularized the stealth genre and had a plot that could charitably be described as ridiculous. Perhaps shamefully, I am a Kojima fan. His studios’ games are often in dire need of an editor and almost constantly tow the line between insight and navel-gazing. Sometimes, they’ve also seemed incapable of treating their female characters with respect. But they are always bursting with ideas, trying things with an unmistakable voice and a ceaseless, pulverizing earnestness. His post-apocalyptic delivery sim Death Stranding is at once laughably on-the-nose (one hard-to-kill character is called “Die-Hardman” AKA: John McClane, of course), and one the most enchanting games I’ve played in the past decade.
I give you this background to help explain how I ended up reading Kojima’s book, The Creative Gene, earlier this year. (It was technically published in late 2021.) Instead of telling some weirdo techno-thriller or a behind-the-scenes look at game development, though, this is a collection of previously published essays about the books, movies and other cultural objects that Kojima finds essential to his being. Like his games, it can border on hokey and self-mythologizing, but it is disarmingly honest, personal and anti-cynical.
In many ways, the Metal Gear games are about identity – who we are and how we got there. That’s more or less what Kojima gets at here; for about 250 pages, he raves about things he likes with a tangible verve, not to recommend them to consumers, but to explore how they’ve shaped his experience. More than a memoir, though, The Creative Gene is an appreciation of how art of all stripes can spark inspiration in a recyclable process.
The prose is nothing extraordinary, and there are certainly more essential subjects out there. While you don’t need to be a gamer to get something out of this, having a familiarity with Kojima’s work doesn’t hurt. Still, The Creative Gene’s sincerity and enthusiasm are easy to appreciate in a time of widespread detachment. – Jeff Dunn, Senior Commerce Writer
Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel
Emily St. John Mandel delivered one of the essential reads of the pandemic when she published The Glass Hotel in March 2020. It was no small feat given she previously wrote the award-winning Station Eleven, a novel that’s set partly after a world-ending flu. Given that there was a five-year gap between Station Eleven and Glass Hotel, I didn’t dare hope one of my favorite authors would release a new novel so soon, and that it would be as good as her previous works. Thankfully, Sea of Tranquility does not disappoint.
It shares many of the same strengths as Mandel’s past novels, including a brilliant sense of atmosphere and prose that rewards close reading. Sea of Tranquility is also in conversation with Station Eleven and The Glass Hotel in a way that will delight fans. That’s not to say you need to have read those books to enjoy her latest, but it may make you look at them (and Mandel’s career) in a new light. Add to that themes that will resonate with anyone who has lived through the past two years and you have one of the best books of 2022. – Igor Bonifacic, Weekend Editor